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Analysis of Hannah Arendt’s Opinion About Collective Dynamics

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On violence by Hannah Arendt is an interesting reflection on History and Politics. In this brief but substantial essay, Hanna Arendt analyzes the historical facts of the sixties including/relating and comparing them within the context of the most important events of the 20th century. The essay is a lucid radiography of violence, which is defined as the ratio used by the individual or the collective to unmask political hypocrisy rather than to fight against structural injustice and the social order (seem as ineluctable events). Arendt’s intentions to dismantle the deficiencies of contemporary intellectualism and the menaces of some social movements are the crux of this book. She makes a sort of semantic cleansing clarifying the differences between the concepts of violence, authority, strength and power. This clarification allows her to propose her own theory on violence, which is very important, especially when it comes to offering an interesting explanation about the destructive power of collective dynamics. It is precisely about the questions related to collective dynamics and collective guilt that I would like to focus on this text.

Hannah Arendt deals with the most important topics on the international political agenda: violence, the causes of violence, the relationship between violence, power, authority, the rationality of violence, the difference between collective and individual violence. Violence is the uncontested protagonist of the history of the twentieth century, but in this book, Arendt’s remarks focus on the violence that takes place in collective spaces, such as the universities. She considers that – in order to analyze violence as a social phenomenon – it is necessary to clear away with any semantic, sociological or ideological ambiguity. She is particularly critical toward ideological ambiguities, starting with the rebuttal of New Left’s Marxism by demonstrating its possible inconsistencies in the light of Marx’s theory of historical materialism.

Marx was aware of the role of violence in history, but this role was to him secondary; not violence but the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end. The emergence of a new society was preceded, but not caused, by violent outbreaks, which he likened to the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.

Sartre, Sorel and Fanon, the advocates of violence as an instrument for the redemption of the oppressed, do not realize (according to Arendt) that their theories serve to support “Marx’s worst illusions”. In the specific case of Sartre, he is reproached for his ideological pretense and for promoting incitement to the third world countries common fight and rebellion. According to Arendt the third world does not exist, but it is an ideology:

To think, finally, that there is such a thing as a ‘Unity of the Third World,’ to which one could address the new slogan in the era of decolonization ‘Natives of all underdeveloped countries unite!’ (Sartre) is to repeat Marx’s worst illusions on a greatly enlarged scale and with considerably less justification. The Third World is not a reality but an ideology.

Arendt’s definition of the third world as an ideology catches my attention due to the opinion that this philosopher and political theorist has regarding ideologies, as stated in her book entitled The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility” ― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

It seems to me that Hannah Arendt’s considers that, regardless of its peculiar backgrounds, Third- World ideology is so dangerous as the other systems of ideas which marked the XX century. I would not venture to affirm that Arendt thinks that Third- Worldism, Nazism, Maoism or Stalinism are cut from the same cloth, but she seems to be convinced that its ideologues pretend, just like in the other political beliefs, to manipulate the masses. There are not good ideologies in the XX century, since all of them pretend to impose a vision of the world. They lead towards fatal consequences, including terror and violence. Ideologies prepare their executors and their victims in a nefarious evasion of reality.

Polemical is also her perspective about the riots in the American Universities and the role that white liberals and the Black Power movement had on them. Her opinion on the requests of the black community and the white response is very virulent. She considers that to affirm that ‘All white men are guilty’ is not only dangerous nonsense, it is also the best excuse for doing nothing. It appears to me that Arendt’s conclusion about these riots and the American collective responsibility is a sort of paraphrases of what she said in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil: “The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies”. According to Arendt, the concept of collective guilt is senseless and serves as an effective whitewash for guilty individuals to hide behind. The reluctance to make judgements based on an individual moral responsibility means that individuals refuse “to be persons”. They decline to interact with others and to assume their role in the world. Collective dynamics obfuscate discernment and the capacity to grasp the difference between right and wrong. It does not open the opportunity to reconstruct the universal moral principles. For these reasons, the American national sense of guilt produces negatives effects: It is developing a sort of racism in reverse, which serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the black population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality. In other words, she alleged, similarly as she did in the Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, that collective guilt tends to justify or banalize reality. It does not deal to understand the real problems of society. Collective dynamics are a sort of vicious circle that needs to be broken since it is pervaded by fear, violence and ignorance. In fact, in the last pages of On Violence, Arendt exposes the core of the matter and gives us a glimpse of the juxtaposition of violence and anger, concluding that the moment in which the engages become the enrages constitutes a complaint in front of the inconsistent theories and ideologies that consider the lack of emotions as an attribute of rationality.

It is evident that Hannah Arendt was a thinker who had not concern in appearing pungent. She offers a revisionary view not only on the issues on violence, but also on the risks of ideologies as obstacles for free-thinking. Despite their differences and the chasm between their adherents, Third- Worldism, Nazism, Maoism, Stalinism, KKK, Black Power, los indignados movement, the gilets jaunes, the lepénistes, the leghisti, etcetera, share the fact that they are a barrier for the development of an autonomous thought. Their followers lose their ability to reject their dogmas and to assume their own responsibilities as individuals. Additionally, they can use the protective shield of the collective dynamics to justify their violence. In other words, according to Hannah Arendt, the only way to finish with the dangerous and vicious circle of ideologies, every individual must cease to be a member of the masses and understand that “il/elle n’est pas Charlie”. Stop being the mass and starting to be ourselves is the only way to finish with the banalization of reality, with the abuse of power, with the instrumentalization of violence and with the manipulation of the masses. 

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